May 26, 2014

Duke, Notre Dame Prepared for Championship Battle

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive | May Madness Home

Matt Kavanagh will match up with Duke defenseman Henry Lobb in Monday's national title game. The two have become familiar with each other over the last two seasons. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

BALTIMORE — When Duke and Notre Dame meet at 1 p.m. Monday with the national title on the line, it will be a rematch of an April 5 game between the two, won 15-7 by the Blue Devils in South Bend. Some things are the same, but many things have changed since then.

The Irish (12-5) have won eight of their nine games since, in the process going from an NCAA tournament bubble team in mid- to late-April, to ACC tournament champion, and now in their second championship game appearance in program history. "We had the mindset and mentality of playoff lacrosse two weeks before the NCAA tournament even started," Notre Dame sophomore attackman Matt Kavanagh said.

Duke (16-3) played a regular season worthy of being the top seed in the big dance and has been the favorite in nearly every game it has played this year. Its offense — averaging 15 goals per game — hasn't been slowed down, with the emergence of sophomores Myles Jones and Deemer Class on the Blue Devils' first midfield to go with the already established attack built around Tewaaraton Award finalist Jordan Wolf.

The Blue Devils are again the favorite Monday, but Notre Dame will present a challenge. The Irish are not in the championship game by accident, or luck. Here are a few areas to watch:

Matt Kavanagh vs. the Duke defense

If Duke does what it has done all season — score plenty of goals — Notre Dame will have to keep up, with Kavanagh working as a central figure in that production. Duke defenseman Henry Lobb has drawn the Kavanagh assignment before, including in the April matchup, in which Kavanagh was held pointless and took only two shots.

At the same time, Kavanagh scored three goals and had three assists against Duke in last year's quarterfinals, and four goals against the Blue Devils in a February 2013 game.

"He's much taller than me, weighs more than me, so he can try to play physical with me," said Kavanagh, who is eight inches shorter and 45 pounds lighter to the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Lobb. "But I've had some success against him last year. I didn't really do too much against him earlier this year, so we'll see."

In any event, look for Kavanagh to work from different spots on the field to keep the Duke defense off-balance, a change from last year and earlier in the season when the lefty would set up shop primarily on the right wing.

"That's what we've evolved to offensively," Corrigan said Saturday after Notre Dame beat Maryland. "That's important for him, it's important for us. It keeps everybody playing different roles. It messes with another team's preparation. All of a sudden, you have a little bit different challenge."

In general, the common theme in Duke's quarterfinal win against Johns Hopkins and semifinal win against Denver was not necessarily limiting total shots, but shots that landed on goal. Johns Hopkins put only 15 of its 35 shots on cage, and Denver 19 of its 36, with four of those on goal coming in a late-game flurry while trailing by three goals on Saturday. Kavanagh, and Notre Dame's offense as a whole with Conor Doyle and John Scioscia humming on attack as well, will look to be more successful and challenge Duke goalie Luke Aaron.

"We try to defend a whole team," Duke coach John Danowski said, "and you want to reduce [Kavanagh's] touches where you can."

The goalies

Danowski said Aaron will in fact start Monday. "If it's not broke, don't fix it, or something like that," he said.

But backup goalie Kyle Turri will be waiting in the bullpen like Mariano Rivera. Turri has been called on the last two games, relieving Aaron in the second half after Aaron posted only three saves each in the quarterfinal round against Johns Hopkins and semifinal against Denver on Saturday.

Danowski said after reviewing the Denver game tape Aaron didn't appear rattled and didn't give up many soft goals, other than a Wesley Berg dribbler between his legs. Duke pulled Aaron after that stop early in the fourth quarter. Turri made four saves in roughly 14 minutes.

"But other than that, a lot of dunks, a lot of inside, a lot of great shots," Danowski said. "In the heat of the battle, it was, all right, let's make a change. But we're very comfortable making a change. It's not like we think that it's going to be a downgrade."

Aaron overtook the starting job from Turri, last year's national championship winning goalie, in February.

For Notre Dame, Conor Kelly has been playing well down the stretch since losing his starting job in the middle of the season. Shane Doss replaced Kelly in the first half of the Irish's matchup with Duke earlier in the season. Kelly has made 31 saves in his last two games.

"We've seen Conor have some ups and downs this year, but there's a reason why he's back in the goal for us right now," Corrigan said. "He was earning that on a daily basis."

Faceoff game

Duke sophomore Luke Aaron will start in goal Monday, despite being pulled in the second half of each of the Blue Devils' last two games. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

The lone bright spot for Notre Dame in its April game, Corrigan said, was on faceoffs. Liam O'Connor won 15 of 25 matchups with Duke's Brendan Fowler.

Against Denver, Notre Dame split faceoff duties between O'Connor and Nick Ossello. Each were credited with winning only three faceoffs, but Ossello in particular was successful tangling up Maryland's Charlie Raffa and Jon Garino and Notre Dame at times went with two long poles on the faceoff wings to turn what could be a head-to-head faceoff battle into a three-on-three contest. You could see the same Monday against Duke's great faceoff man Brendan Fowler.

"We're going to have to muck it up a little bit with that guy," Corrigan said Saturday. "He's terrific and we'll do everything we can to get every possession we can."

Can Notre Dame slow down the Duke offense?

The Blue Devils are playing with a ton of confidence on offense, and why not? Duke has seven players with 20-plus goals, with Kyle Keenan (playing on attack in place of the injured Josh Dionne) and midfifelder Christian Walsh joining that club during the semifinal round, and four players with least 25 assists.

"The development of the midfield has taken a lot of pressure off our attack," Duke midfielder Myles Jones said. "Jordan Wolf feels the world is off his shoulders now because everyone is focused on the front of the cage and he's able to take advantage."

Half-field is one thing, but Corrigan said one of the main points of emphasis the Irish will have going into Monday is limiting Duke's early offense and transition chances. That means attempting to slow down speedy Duke short-stick midfielder Will Haus, who bears resemblance to Matt Abbott, he of the Human Clear, and challenging Duke's midfielders while the Blue Devils bring the ball up the field.

"You have to make the game a little bit more of a full‑field game so that they can't just run that first midfield to death and keep those guys out there," Corrigan said.

Notre Dame's 10-man ride

Of all the four teams playing this weekend, Notre Dame is the only to have shown the desire to play the full 110-yards in the riding game. They started off pressing out against Maryland on Saturday. They hope not to have to use the full-court press against Duke, but will be comfortable if it's needed. Ask Albany about that, or Detroit last year in what was almost one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history.

"We just try to buy some time to try to force them to make a play they're not comfortable making with under 10 seconds," Kavanagh said. "They have to force it to get it into the box. If they do get it past the midfield line, Steve [O'Hara] and Matt Landis are just waiting there for a takeaway check, a kill check, so I think our attack has done a great job routing all season, and if we have to go with the 10‑man ride which I'm hoping we don't have to do [Monday], we've done it before."

Intangibles

You can't measure the mental game in the stat sheet, but Notre Dame has been playing with a must-win mentality since the ACC semifinals, when a loss in back-to-back games with Maryland would have damaged the Irish's NCAA tournament at-large hopes. Starting with that 6-5 win over the Terps, Notre Dame has won six straight.

The Irish are also playing with the proverbial chip on their shoulders, as an underdog-type over the last two weeks, facing fan favorite Albany in the quarterfinals, and Saturday playing against Maryland in the Terps' home state.

"I think there were 37 people cheering for us in a sellout crowd of 13,000 [at Hofstra]," Corrigan said. "I wanted to come to the press conference afterwards and say I apologize to all those people who wanted to see Albany here right now because it was clear that there weren't a lot of people rooting for us. We kind of just kept that mentality this week."

On the flip side, this Duke team is rolling, the favorite, and has championship experience, which is valuable in everything from off-day preparation to managing the nerves and circumstances of championship Monday.

Odds and Ends

Danowski said Duke's doctors advised long-stick midfielder Luke Duprey not to play on a torn ACL, but obviously the senior captain did anyway on Saturday against Denver. He work a knee brace, as he has in limited practice time over the last two weeks. He was injured April 11 against Virginia. Duprey's presence on the sideline, constantly hovering near the substitution box waiting to get in — and then finally when he did play in a limited role in the second half — gave the Blue Devils an emotional lift. "I was amazed watching him out there," Duke midfielder Christian Walsh said. Jones said after Duprey was injured he said he would play on final four weekend if the Blue Devils' got there. Man of his word.

People will talk about the 2010 final between Duke and Notre Dame, but no players are left on either side from those teams, although there is some consistency with the coaching staffs. The only player who would have been a consideration if 29-year-old Blue Devils defenseman Casey Carroll, but he was watching score updates of that title game via the internet while serving in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger in 2010. He will play on Memorial Day, a fitting end to what has been a unique college lacrosse-playing career. A more relevant comparison would be this year's April matchup or the two last year. Remember Notre Dame and Duke played an entertaining 12-11 quarterfinal game last year. It featured nine ties and Duke scored the final three goals to win. And based on the tape that Corrigan said he watched Sunday morning — of Duke's last game against Syracuse in the ACC semifinal, a 16-15 barn-burner — expect a similar fast pace.


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